Chances are good that Stephen Frears’ fact-based Philomena is the most perfectly crafted, expertly made, finely calculated movie you will see this year. Oh, you will see — you probably already have seen — better films, but whether you’ll encounter anything else so precisely successful at what it sets out to do, I’m doubtful. This is a splendid meeting of director, screenplay and stars. I don’t know that Stephen Frears has ever made a bad film — though he’s certainly made some lesser ones — but Philomena is definitely on the high-end of his filmography. That it stars Judi Dench will probably ensure that it will be one of his most successful, too. Face it, there’s a section of the moviegoing public who will flock to see any film she stars in. (You know who you are.) That this movie pairs her with the cynical Steve Coogan (who also co-wrote and co-produced the film) is another plus. Yes, it makes them into a fairly standard odd couple — and its “surprises” are more satisfying than surprising — but in their hands, the chemistry of the hardened cynic and the seemingly unworldly little old lady is pretty irresistible.
Dench stars as Philomena Lee, a woman who, 50 years earlier, had an out-of-wedlock son in an Irish Catholic convent. The son was not merely taken away from her but was actually sold by the convent (the going rate at the time being, it seems, was £1000). Her own efforts to find her son had come to nothing but pat excuses about a fire that destroyed the records from that era. It happens that her story lands on the desk of former star reporter and government press secretary Martin Sixsmith (Coogan). It’s the sort of tale that not only doesn’t interest him, but that he holds in complete contempt. However, with his career in need of a jump-start, he grudgingly ends up pursuing it for a newspaper that’s keen on the story — as long as it’s “really, really happy or really, really sad.”
Not surprisingly, Sixsmith is almost painfully condescending toward Philomena — but she’s clearly not as oblivious to his contempt as she appears. But once he becomes involved in the story — and especially once he realizes that the convent is handing Philomena a carefully contrived snow-job — that attitude starts to change. Where Philomena is satisfied that all the paperwork was destroyed in a convenient fire — except, of course, the document where she signed away her rights to the child — Sixsmith isn’t. And it doesn’t take long before he unearths the convent’s brisk business of selling children for adoption — primarily to rich Americans. This naturally takes them to America to find the truth. This is where I’ll leave the film to tell its own story. What happens is sufficiently unexpected that it deserves to be experienced in the film, not in a review.
What makes Philomena work — apart from the shrewd performances — is the craftsmanship Frears brings to the storytelling. As he blends past and present, his seemingly effortless stylishness is the assured work of a master filmmaker (one who always sells himself short in interviews). Yes, Dench and Coogan are remarkable. Without them, the film probably wouldn’t work at all. Dench, in particular, is a source of endless delight as she casually reveals herself to be far more worldly (and non-judgmentally broad-minded) than we expect. That she started out as something of a joke, while Sixsmith is revealed to be the real joke, is pure joy. So much of what makes the movie come together lies in Frears’ ability to tell the story with a keen eye and full control over how to dispense its inevitably sentimental aspects. This may just be the season’s surprise must-see. Rated PG-13 on appeal for some strong language, thematic elements and sexual references.
Playing at Carolina Cinemas